Earlier this year I was offered the unprecedented opportunity to show work that I’d been doing for a decade at the Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito, California. The Bay Model is a spectacular 1.5-acre indoor hydraulic model of San Francisco Bay. Opened in 1957, this giant model of the Bay was used to evaluate plans to dam or otherwise alter the Bay until digital computers took over this task around the year 2000. Today it is an educational attraction. It also has a wonderful, high ceiling exhibit hall that has become the major public art gallery for Marin County, the county just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Since 2006, I’d been working on a series of images of water itself – not the reflective lake at the bottom of a landscape – instead looking intensively just at the water. Water in its purest form is invisible – perfectly clear. We only sense it by the light it refracts or reflects, the biota or sediments it carries or by its action on the landscape. This quest to artistically characterize water proved challenging and by 2008 I began to wonder if it was something I could really bring to fruition. Then I happened to fly out of San Francisco International Airport and was absolutely stunned to look down and see the dramatically colourful salt ponds and wetlands at the south end of the Bay.
The salt ponds at the south end of San Francisco Bay are part of a vast commercial salt harvesting operation.
The ponds are areas flooded with sea water, which is allowed to evaporate, leaving sea salt behind. Many of the ponds are owned by Cargill Corporation, which harvests the salt commercially. The intense colors – ochers, oranges, yellows are due to brine shrimp in the water – whose colour depends upon the salinity of the water. The greens are the result of algae. Magentas and royal blues can result when some of these colors combine with the reflected blue of the sky. When the ponds dry out the organisms turn white and all the colours disappear.
A helicopter is a great platform for aerial photography. The range and altitudes involved in this project are beyond the capability of drones.
The ponds form an amazing subject and since 2009, I’ve returned periodically and flown over the ponds and wetlands in a helicopter with the door off. This provides an ideal photographic platform.
At first, I was using a medium format Hasselblad H3D-39 rented from The Camera Store. Later I used a Pentax 645D and more recently a Nikon D810. I also used a gyro stabilizer with the Hasselblad, since its top shutter speed is limited to 1/800 sec. – just barely adequate to cancel the vibration and motion of the helicopter. I found that in most cases a camera’s built in vibration compensation did not help and I got best results with just the simple normal lens on the camera, an 80mm or 75mm lens for medium format and 50mm with the Nikon.
Advice, rentals and support from the Camera Store have been invaluable in advancing this work.
The show at the Bay Model Visitor’s Center involved printing 22 images about 40 x 30 inches, one 38 x 76 inches and one 40 x 50 inches. This proved to be a huge amount of work, requiring detailed evaluation of hundreds of images from both a technical and an artistic standpoint. Proofing candidate images and evaluating the printer consumed 200 feet of 44” wide paper. Once candidate images were selected, each required many hours of processing in Adobe Photoshop. About a third of the images were stitched together from multiple frames taken in the air.
The striking colors are due to microorganisms in the ponds.
I had intended to print the images myself but was most grateful to be able to turn this task over the Royce Howland Print Studio. Royce’s work is amazing and you can walk right up to any of these prints, even the ones from crops of single camera frames, and they are all dead sharp, highly detailed and artistically consistent with each other. For the final prints we chose Hahnemühle Photo Rag Satin, a beautiful 100 % cotton rag paper with a very slightly textured, clean white surface that complemented the strong colours and whites in the images.
Near the ponds, wetlands offer fantastic visual forms.
I chose to hang the show using a system called Posterhanger (posterhanger.com). This system is “some assembly required” and it took a very long day of organized, intensive work, by my wife Celeste Peters and I, to get the show on the gallery walls, however the cost of framing and shipping framed images of this size would have been impossible. The result is a clean, professional looking presentation.
How do you get a show in a gallery like this? In this case a professional colleague in San Francisco was so taken with my work that she approached the Bay Model Visitor Center on my behalf. (It is wonderful to have true believers in one’s work – thank you Joyce Gardella!)
In summary, this show represents a decade’s image making and literally hundreds of hours of immensely detailed preparation involving everything from processing the images, to marketing the show, to building the crate to ship the images. Dozens of smaller shows have helped pave the way for this one. I’m immensely grateful to The Camera Store for supporting my work and the many individuals who provided advice, encouragement or just plain hard work to help pull this off. For more information see http://www.whenwaterdreams.com. Images © Bill Peters 2009 – 2019